Palestinians around Middle East face ‘catastrophe’ with UN agency’s cash crunch

Refugees in Lebanon particularly at risk as closure of basic services looms

Lebanese, Palestinian and UN officials have warned of a looming “catastrophe” for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, as the UN agency tasked with their care said it could only survive another month.

“We will continue our operations until the end of March,” said Dorothée Klaus, director of the programme run in Lebanon by Unrwa, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which provides state-like assistance for more than 250,000 people.

“After that, if funding isn’t resumed, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In January, Israel alleged that a dozen of the agency’s Gazan employees took part in Hamas’s deadly October 7th attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people, according to the Israeli government. Nearly 30,000 people have been killed by Israel’s offensive in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Palestinian health ministry.


The allegations against the UN agency’s staff, which remain unproven, prompted the US and 15 other countries to suspend $450 million (€415 million) of funding at a time when the agency is providing vital aid to nearly two million Palestinians in the besieged Gaza strip. In 2023, those 16 countries contributed 70 per cent of Unrwa’s total income.

Last week Unrwa chief Philippe Lazzarini said the agency was at “breaking point”.

By the end of March, unless other donor countries step up, Unrwa will be unable to pay its 30,000 staff, and will stop providing services not only to refugees in Gaza but to almost four million more in the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

It is the most severe crisis to hit the organisation in its 75-year history.

In Lebanon, Unrwa “is where they bring their babies for vaccination, this is where they bring their children to school. When they have psychological or social problems, they come and see our social workers”, said Klaus.

All of that could vanish, she said. “We are being put in an impossible position,” Klaus said, adding that Unrwa had already been working with “extremely limited” resources for several years.

“Do we shut down the schools? Do we shut down health centres? Do we not collect the garbage?”

Officials warned that, among other effects, the additional deprivation could drive more young people to join militant groups in the region.

While Klaus said the agency still hoped for a solution, she stressed it had not yet received concrete offers from other donors, such as Gulf Arab countries that helped cushion the blow in 2018 after the Trump administration withdrew US funding to the agency.

In Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, countries with desperate economic circumstances, cuts to Unrwa programming will be particularly devastating.

“We’re talking about countries that already have very limited fiscal space,” said Ibrahim Saif, a Jordanian economist and ex-government minister, adding that all three countries were running budget deficits. “They don’t have resources in their budget to allocate for refugees.”

In Lebanon, the situation for Palestinian refugees – who include those forced to flee their homeland in 1948 and several generations of their descendants – is uniquely dire: barred by the state from working in most professions, owning property or accessing public services, they are trapped in poverty and rely on the agency for basic needs.

Since 2019, this predicament has been exacerbated by the country’s crippling economic crisis.

Lebanon’s government, which is also grappling with a war on its southern border that has displaced tens of thousands of people, fears that Unrwa cuts will create more upheaval. The state is already overburdened by more than a million Syrian refugees and a newly impoverished population.

For the past few weeks, disbelief has reigned among Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees. But with no solution on the horizon, this is morphing into panic.

“There’s no alternative to Unrwa, so there’s an intense state of anxiety and fear among the students and families,” said Jihad Abdel Wahhab, a primary school science teacher in the Unrwa-run Jordan River school in Beddawi camp in northern Lebanon. His students ask him: “If the schools close, what’s going to happen to us?”

“Either the kids are going to go work, or they’re going to go to drugs ... or to arms,” he said – concerns echoed by Unrwa officials who have noted a recent uptick in recruitment to Hamas.

Amr al-Khatib, a resident of the Burj al-Barajneh camp in southern Beirut, said he and many others depended on Unrwa healthcare, including monthly treatment and medications. “Who’s going to fill the gap?... It will be a disaster for the Palestinians,” he said.

In recent weeks, Unrwa has met Palestinian camp civilian administrators to warn them. Within weeks, “there’s nothing, there’s nothing, there’s nothing”, an Unrwa official recently told Burj al-Barajneh camp committee member Samer Abu Omar.

The European Commission said on Friday it would proceed with a phased payout of €82 million previously committed to Unrwa, but with conditions attached including a review to confirm no staff were involved in the Hamas attack.

Unrwa chief Philippe Lazzarini welcomed the injection of cash but told reporters it was less than the $60mn the agency spends on average each month on basic salaries, excluding “acute humanitarian needs... and all the services”.

Beyond its importance to daily life, Unrwa also holds symbolic significance for many who see the agency as the last remaining formal recognition of Palestinians’ right to return to their homelands.

Unrwa has been “the only witness to the Palestinian Nakba”, or catastrophe, said Abu Omar, using the term by which Palestinians refer to their displacement with the foundation of Israel in 1948.

“So if Unrwa goes, where’s the witness?” he said. “There will no longer be one. And we, as a people, will start to dissolve into the societies around us.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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